Issue No. 119
In 2013 House of Anansi Press launched Astoria, a new imprint dedicated exclusively to publishing short story collections. That year, one of the first collections to be published under the imprint—Hellgoing by Lynn Coady—won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in Canada, beating out a longlist and shortlist dominated by novels.
I joined Anansi three months after the launch of the new imprint, and the first short story collection we acquired was Chez l’arabe by Mireille Silcoff. What first caught my attention was a set of interwoven autobiographical stories about a woman battling a rare neurological condition. The disease leaves the unnamed woman on bedrest for months; she is trapped in her house, in her body, and in her mind. These four first-person stories are a fascinating examination of physical and mental confinement. As a reader, you feel the claustrophobia of the character’s limited existence, the frustration of her complete dependence on others, and her longing for corporeal and psychological freedom.
These four stories merge seamlessly into the rest of the collection, which includes the story published here, “Champ de Mars.” In this story, a woman named Ellen must contend with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in her once-successful husband and her own pent-up rage and resentment. Throughout their marriage, Ellen has lived in her husband’s shadow: he’s an internationally renowned architect and she is as invisible as the glass walls in her husband’s designs. Ellen feels like an outsider in her own body—eating and baking compulsively—and her own family. She has already lost a daughter, and she is rejected once again by her husband, who sits day after day in a subway station he designed, drawing intricately detailed hearts for strangers.
There is a recurring theme of failure in Chez l’arabe: of our bodies, our relationships, and our best efforts. But the stories are always tempered by sharp humor and shrewd emotional insights. Silcoff’s ability to articulate a deep appreciation of the beauty in the world around us is one of the hallmarks of this collection: from a meticulously set dinner table and luxurious old furniture to modernist subway stations and exotic California flowers.
Eudora Welty once wrote: “Some stories leave a train of light behind them, meteor-like, so that much later than they strike our eye we may see their meaning like an after-effect.” That describes the experience of reading Silcoff’s stories: they possess a distinct visual and psychological resonance that imprints itself upon the mind long after you’ve finished reading. As only the very best writing can.
Janice Zawerbny, Senior Editor
Canadian Fiction, House of Anansi Press
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Collect Them All
by Mireille Silcoff
Recommended by House of Anasi Press
Ellen Wölke was the shape of an apple, round and enormous. She had been heavy for years—and every year it surprised her, the way it surprises a person to learn that they graduated forty years ago, not ten. Still, she knew it to be different now, because when she ate, people watched. People used to look at Ellen for other reasons, this wispy woman, with long, rib-skimming hair the color of red milky tea. Now it was only: how does such size happen? (Or if they knew Ellen: yes, that’s how that size happens.)
Not long ago, Ellen counted the number of times she’d eaten in one day: fourteen. That was more than usual, and half of it was blind eating, emotional eating. She counted silently, tapping her fingers on a placemat with a plate of plum cake on it and a half-drunk glass of milk. Dory was sitting across from her, with his own slice of cake, his glass of milk full. He was wearing his dress shirt buttoned up but without a tie, a purgatorial mode Ellen associated with architects and people who didn’t dress themselves.
Dory was now both of those things. Although he’d always worn a tie before.
“You look Amish,” she said, not really to Dory, and also not to May, who was making herself busy washing Ellen’s cake pan, and was from the Philippines, and wouldn’t know the Amish. In truth, Dory looked more retarded than anything, his eyes reverting to childhood, his features slowly, giddily capitulating.
Even a year ago, he had still been the old Dory, the real Dory, forgetful, but not so much that it turned his insides out: he couldn’t remember the name of Ellen’s place of work, the institute that she’d founded decades before—The Children’s Place? The Children’s Center? It’s the Learning Center? Are you sure? Then he couldn’t remember how to adjust his drafting table, then he didn’t know where his fine-tip pens were.
When they were first married, forty-five years ago, Ellen used to accuse Dory of a hyper-vigilance that bordered on the obsessive. An architect is an architect, and a German architect, enough said, but still, it was something to get used to, something Ellen could only work around. All the fine-tip pens had to go in a certain narrow white ceramic cup. The cup needed to be in the upper left-hand corner of the desk. There were a million things like that. Dory used to say that when he was a youth, his head had always been in the clouds. He would lose a shoe on his way to school. He would become deaf when drawing pictures of fanciful mazes or crazy Christmas trees in class, the teacher repeating his name over and over: Dorian, Dorian Wölke, bist du da?
To become an integrated man of line and angle he had needed to train those tendencies out of himself. The fine-tip pens needed to be in the cup, said Dory, because if not, they would be in the bathroom, the bedroom, the fridge.